childbearing, confinements, and churching (LONG!)
Posted by Laura W on January 10, 1998 at 20:18:27:
I was reading some of the archives and found a question Caroline asked about confinements and "churching." There is a wonderfully detailed description of "how things were done" in Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, by Stella Tillyard (New York: Noonday Press, 1994). This book is a biography of the four daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond.
Lady Emily, the second daughter, married the Earl of Kildare in 1747 when she was barely 15— and he had been courting her determinedly for 18 months; it was her parents who objected to the match, because although he was very rich, and the highest-ranking peer of Ireland (and the King had created him Viscount Leinster in the English peerage so that he could have a seat in the House of Lords), he was still Irish, and determined to live in Ireland. In 1766 he was created 1st Duke of Leinster, and the town house he built, Leinster House in Dublin, later became the seat of Irish government. He also built a huge estate west of Dublin called Carton, which was unfinished when he married Emily.
Emily had nineteen children by this marriage, and after the Duke died she scandalized the world by marrying her children's tutor, William Ogilvie, by whom she had three more children. So between the years 1748 and 1778, she bore no less than 22 children (in the last years she had many miscarriages); she bore her first child at the age of 16 and her last when she was almost 47. Obviously Emily's relationships with her husbands were very sexual, and she bore children with comparative ease.
In addition to the time following childbirth, "confinement" also refers to the time when a woman menstruated, when she was not supposed to have sexual relations and often took to her bed anyway.
Although the following description is not quite Regency, and it is strictly about the highest aristocracy, I think it is still very relevant to "our" time period. In addition, I think the narrative is interesting and I have never seen a better one on the subject of childbearing. I will therefore quote a few pages from the book:
"For all of them [the sisters], menstruation was associated with physical and mental distress. "At certain times, my poor nerves are very bad, and it would be hard to say how they are affected. I am so full of odd whims, I will try the lime flower tea," Louisa [Emily's younger sister, Mrs. Conolly] wrote. Periods were habitually referred to as the "French lady's visit," and having one's period was "being the French lady," being, that is, in a familiar but different state. As Emily's daughter Charlotte wrote in 1779: ‘I have within these few days been rather worse by being the French lady, at which time there is no telling how very ill I am.'
"Periods were at best a slight discomfort, at worst a serious inconvenience. Menstrual rags made ordinary life difficult. Some women, like Charlotte Fitzgerald [Emily's daughter, above], took to their beds. Others, like Caroline [Emily's eldest sister, who married Henry Fox and later became 1st Baroness Holland], stayed at home and raged at their body's bad timing. In 1759, when Louisa was first in London after her wedding, Caroline wrote to Emily: ‘I must tell you Louisa and Conolly come here Monday, stay till Saturday, then go to Goodwood [the Duke of Richmond's country house], where they stay two days. I shall not be able to go with them, I much fear, which is a great disappointment to me. But 'twill be a time I can't. I shall be glad to be old, to be rid of that plague. Yours C. Fox.' By the late 1760s Caroline's discomfort increased and she began to think that the menopause was upon her. While old age might have seemed attractive a few years before, getting to it promised to be difficult, as she hinted in 1766: ‘I seem to have been out of order a week, ten days and a fortnight's end, never get beyond three weeks scarcely. I own I dread disorders of that kind, particularly as I am now past forty-three, something of that kind may be beginning.'
"Only Emily [among her sisters] looked forward to her period. Any discomfort it brought was offset by the emphatic message that for the moment at least she was free from pregnancy. Despite her love for her children, Emily often longed for a respite from childbearing, so she was happy to be able to report to Kildare in 1762 (barely three months after the birth of her daughter Sophia) that her fears of pregnancy were unfounded: ‘The complaint I mentioned in my last letter goes on very well and puts me quite out of all doubt, which is a vast comfort; but I am exceeding low with it, more so than I ever was in my life.' Others waited anxiously with Emily for her period to arrive. ‘I shall be fidgety about you till I hear of the next French lady's visit,' wrote Louisa in the 1770s.
"All too often, though, Emily's predictions were right, and she began another pregnancy. As time went on and her family grew, she developed a thorough knowledge, fashionable and practical, of the protocols and procedures of childbirth. Rather than give way to worries about its dangers, she organised her pregnancies around a series of rituals which allowed her to go her own queenly way and to become the undisputed obstetric authority within the extended family. Her plan for pregnancy and childbirth was very simple and very effective; in all her labours she never had a stillbirth and lost only one newborn baby, Caroline, who died after four weeks, in 1755.
"A successful pregnancy, Emily believed, was one which was lived as usual. ‘More people have hurt their health by fear of miscarrying than by its happening,' she declared. She advised good food and plenty of rest and exercise. If walking was out of the question (as it certainly was for Emily, with her regal indolence and her muscles slackened by multiple pregnancies), a daily rattle in a bouncing carriage was a necessity. Some ‘7 or 8 mile every day' in a post chaise ‘along a jumbling road . . . to jumble you' could, Emily asserted, make ‘labour so much easier.' She herself was often to be seen being driven about the Carton desmesne by her humpbacked coachman in her beloved pea-green one-horse chaise.
"When she suspected that her lying-in was close (or, as Louisa put it, she was ‘about to pig'), Emily moved to Leinster House in Dublin to prepare for the birth. Following contemporary aristocratic fashion Emily always had a man she referred to as ‘the doctor' in attendance at the birth. He was a surgeon or an ‘accoucheur,' as especially trained male midwives called themselves. Hovering outside the door of the birth chamber would be a nurse-keeper, whose job it was to wash and clothe the child, and a wet nurse. Inside, apart from the doctor and any other attending servants, would be Louisa, Cecilia, or Sarah [her sisters— Cecilia was the youngest sister, never married, lived with Emily, and died at 19 of consumption]. The Duke of Leinster never mentioned being in the birth chamber, but if he was in the house at all, he was probably near at hand: Henry Fox was close enough to Caroline when Charles [James] Fox was born to be able to see his son before he was dressed, which since it was midwinter must have been as soon as he was washed and dried. Emily's older children would be nearby, too, eating cake and drinking what her son William described as ‘this delicious caudle.' Caudle was a rich spicy wine prepared especially for the attendants to drink during and after childbirth.
"As she became a connoisseur of childbirth, Emily concentrated more and more on the circumstances rather than the process of labour. She insisted that her room be light, with the curtains drawn back if it was daytime, and plenty of candles if it was night. This was contrary to the common practice of darkening the birth chamber, as was her belief in open windows and fresh air. As her confidence grew, she continued daily life, and the story she wrote of it, right up until the onset of labour. ‘Only think how delightful it is, my dearest sister, to have a letter of yours to answer, wrote on the day that you were brought to bed,' Louisa wrote in 1770, when Emily was thirty-nine, adding, ‘'Tis a sign of your having been so well.' Once or twice Emily described her labours as ‘tedious,' but, although she said her children had caused her pain, she never referred to childbirth itself as a painful process, psychologically or physically.
"As soon as her children were born, Emily handed them over to servants. Following the advice of John Locke in his Thoughts Concerning Education, she insisted that they should be lightly clothed, without pins or swaddling. Although she was a believer in breast- feeding, Emily did not breast-feed any of her own children. In keeping with a popular belief that breast-feeding could damage the eyes, Emily, who suffered all her life from painful and debilitating eye inflamation (alleviated by applying leeches), handed every one of her children over to a wet nurse on her doctor's orders. She always regretted it. ‘Mama,' said her son George to her one morning in the late 1770s, ‘"Don't the mothers of calves give them suck?" "Yes," says I. "And why then did you not give me suck for you are my mother like the cows are the mothers of the little calves." Was not this quite cutting? It went to my heart and I was ready to cry, but I told him that the naughty doctors and people would not let me and so I got Ryley to do it for me."'
"Once her labour was over and the child dispatched to the nursery, Emily entered into her month-long confinement. Confinement was not only a time to rest but also a time to relish, because all duties, both social and managerial, were suspended. Emily lay, sat, and then lounged first in her bedchamber, then in her dressing room, and finally in her parlour. She was cosseted by her family and servants and visited by friends and relations. Because of the anxiety about her eyes, reading was proscribed for a week or two, so Emily chatted and played cards. On 10 August 1761, eleven days after having given birth to her fourth son, Henry, in London, Emily had got out of her bedchamber and into her dressing room. She had just begun to write and received a constant stream of visitors and relatives like her aunt Lady Albemarle: ‘I write a little a day . . . that I may not make my head giddy by too much at a time. Sarah's being with me is mighty comfortable. The boys sit with me the whole evening. Last night I had my two Viscounts. Lady Harrington and her daughters the night before, besides Lady Albemarle and hers; which, added to my sister [Caroline] who has been here every evening, has kept me in a continual hurry of company and tired me a little; but I make up for it . . . by sleeping all morning till twelve or one o'clock.' Three days later she had got into her ‘outward room,' hired a new housekeeper, and was dining on pheasant.
"Confinement held two other joys for Emily. In the first place it was characterised by a social informality and jollity, and in the second it made her the cynosure of all eyes. Everybody came to her, and their duty was to entertain their hostess rather than, as usually, the other way around. On 17 August Emily wrote again to her husband: ‘I have never been alone, someone or other continually dropping in . . . I had a Dutch cousin Bylande to see me t'other day, who the last time he was here in England found me lying-in "apparement la famille de Mi Ladi doit ętre assez nombreuse," says the man, which diverted Sarah and Lord Powerscourt prodigiously. They told him it was true for that I had done nothing but lie in ever since. Lord Powerscourt lounges away some part of every evening here. If he comes early we make him read Tom Jones to us, which diverts the boys."'
After her month's confinement Emily went through the sacramental ceremony of churching, when women were readmitted to the outside world after childbirth. ‘For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God of His goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great dangers of childbirth: you shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God,' intoned the Dublin minister or the Holland House chaplain at the beginning of the service. To which Emily was supposed to reply, following along in the Book of Common Prayer, ‘I am well pleased that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer; the snares of death compassed me round: and the pains of hell got hold upon me.'
"Churching brought women back into daily life. It signalled that the ritual of childbirth was successfully completed and, in Emily's case, that the cycle might begin again. After churching came sex. The Duke of Leinster had no hesitation in acting upon the service's injunction that ‘children and the fruit of the womb are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord . . . Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.' Most of his children were born between eleven and fifteen months apart. In May 1766, two months after the birth of Lord Gerald Fitzgerald, the Duke wrote to Emily from London: ‘I long, and yet fear to hear, if any consequences has happened from my being so happy with my Emily.' This time they were lucky: Emily had a year's respite between the birth of Gerald and the conception of Augustus."
pp. 205-209. The narrative goes on to describe the rearing of children, diseases, doctors, innoculation from smallpox, and education (á la Rousseau).
Another passage in this book describes in similar readable detail the process of divorce (Sarah divorced her first husband), including the legal status of illegitimate children, the damage to the reputation of Sarah's younger, unmarried sister Cecilia; an earlier chapter describes the near- engagement of Sarah to George III; and a later one describes the scandal caused by Emily's second marriage. In addition, there are elopements, continental tours, illnesses, surgeries, marriages, births, deaths, and always politics, politics, politics. This book more than any other served as a catalyst to convince me to pursue my latent interest in the peerage, especially its genealogy, and to research the period leading up to and including the Regency. I highly recommend it.
Posting followups to old messages is disabled; instead go to the main index and post a new message which mentions this one.